Emotional eating refers to food being consumed in response to feelings or emotions, rather than physical hunger cues that tell you when, what, and how much to eat. Emotional eating is often called “bad” or a problem to be dealt with, however it’s actually a very normal response to emotions. Food is linked to emotions; food can be soothing, calming, a part of celebrations (hello, birthday cake!). Food can also be used to numb or push down difficult to deal with emotions, and is a valid and normal coping mechanism.
To make it really clear, emotional eating is not “bad”, like the internet might suggest. But the problem with eating as a way to cope with emotions is that turning to food is unlikely to help in the long-term, and if it is happen often, it may be problematic. What we do want is to add extra coping strategies into our toolbox for dealing with emotions (often termed the emotional coping toolkit) so that you can have a range of coping strategies, and not just food. The key here is to add in, not completely take out food, which is what diet culture and the media suggest as the solution for emotional eating.
So why might you be emotional eating?
Food and emotions are tied up. As children, being a part of the “clean plate club” is rewarded by being given dessert. Or as a teenager, going out for a family meal to celebrate exam results. Or after breakups or arguments, foods like cookies or ice cream might be used to soothe negative emotions… I’m sure you can think of some more examples too.
As you can see, eating in response to emotions is really common, and completely understandable.
How can you cope with emotional eating?
There are a number of ways to do this, which are outlined below. Remember, the goal is not to take away food, but to add in extra coping tools. Please seek out a disordered eating professional who can help with emotional eating if you need extra support.
Recognise how emotional eating has served you in the past.
Remember that emotional eating is normal (for all the reasons above) and that you’re taking care of yourself in the way you can. Think about how you would speak to a friend or a child. How would you explain this to them? What kind of language and tone might you use? Think about how you could apply this to how you speak to yourself, and write some affirmations or a few lines you can read when you’re berating yourself for emotional eating in the future.
How are you labelling food? Are you mentally or physically restricting any foods?
Diet culture is pervasive and is a shape-shifter. So you might not be “on a diet”, but you might still be holding onto food rules, internalised diet practices, and labelling food as “good/bad” or “healthy/unhealthy” which can lead to physical restriction or mental restriction.
Physical restriction might look like never allowing yourself to eat a certain food, whereas mental restriction is more rooted in this new form of “wellness” diet culture. Where you can eat clean, plus a few squares of dark chocolate everyday. Think about where you’re at and how this might be maintaining a poor relationship with food.
Think about the foods you currently eat when emotionally eating. How do you label them? Are they “bad foods”? This might be a clue you have some work to do on your unconditional permission to eat. For more information and guidance on this, check out Principle 1 of Intuitive Eating in the Intuitive Eating book or workbook. Or speak to an Intuitive Eating practitioner.
Practice self compassion.
Navigating emotional eating is difficult work. Especially if food has been your coping tool for a long time, or if you feel like food is all you have for comfort and support. When you’re feeling bad about emotional eating, remind yourself: “I’m dealing with a lot right now, and I’m trying the best I can. These feelings will pass, but this is how I’m taking care of myself right now”.
Check-in with self-care (including responding to hunger).
There are a bunch of different types of self-care, including physical and emotional needs. The basic self-care needs are food, water, sleep, movement, safety, purpose, connection with self and others.
With regards to emotional eating, it’s important to check in with the basic self-care. Are you eating enough to feel comfortably full? Are you getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night? Write a list of those basic self-care needs and reflect if you are meeting those needs and how you could improve them.
Are you eating regularly, and eating enough?
This fits into physical self-care too. But it’s really important. If you’re recovering from disordered eating or dieting, it’s likely you have been pushing down hunger for a long-time, or trying to eat as little as possible. For most people, an eating routine of 3 meals plus 2-3 snacks per day would meet their normal hunger needs. This way, you can identify if your emotional eating is actually driven by a need to push down or deal with emotions, or if you’re just genuinely hungry!
Once you’re eating 3 meals plus 2-3 snacks per day, and you’re meeting those other basic self-care needs, you can identify if you are holding onto food rules too (aka mentally restricting).
Working through your feelings and responding to them without using food can be really exhausting. So make a list of other distractions you can try. This might include watching a film, painting, speaking to a friend, journaling, or doing a jigsaw.
You might also find it’s helpful to try a distraction activity for 5-10 minutes, before turning to food. This way you always know food is available, but you can assess if self-care routines like a bubble bath, meditation or listening to music will benefit you enough. If not, then you can always turn to food after. Make sure to show yourself self-compassion if this happens.
Contribution from Shannon Western Anutr